Here are 13 candidates to replace Clay Helton as USC’s permanent head football coach

Penn State coach James Franklin during their NCAA football practice.
Penn State coach James Franklin instructs his players during a spring practice in April.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

With Clay Helton’s firing Monday, the USC football head coaching job is open for the first time since 2015. Here are the top candidates for athletic director Mike Bohn to consider while making a tenure-defining hire.

First calls


Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell walks on the sideline during a game against Iowa on Saturday
(Matthew Putney / Associated Press)

Campbell has done the unthinkable by turning Iowa State into a yearly contender in the Big 12, and he’s done it in no-frills fashion, with a strong running game and defense. Campbell recently signed a lengthy extension with the Cyclones, but you’d have to think that there are certain schools, such as USC, that would pique his interest.


Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell speaks with quarterback Desmond Ridder before a game against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 4.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)


There are obvious deep connections between Fickell and USC, as Bohn hired Fickell to be the Bearcats’ head coach when he was the athletic director at Cincinnati. Bohn saw firsthand how Fickell built the Bearcats into an undefeated playoff contender out of the Group of Five last season. Fickell is an Ohio guy and now has the Bearcats on the verge of joining the Big 12, so it’s possible he would not risk a cushy situation to come across the country to Los Angeles.


James Franklin, Penn State head coach

Penn State coach James Franklin walks with his players onto the field before a game against Ball State on Sept. 11.
(Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

As rumors swirled about Helton the last few offseasons, Franklin’s name has gotten buzz as a candidate for the Trojans when the job did come open. He has the proven track record of making Vanderbilt competitive in the Southeastern Conference and turning Penn State into a Big Ten champion, and his energy will play in the big city with even bigger expectations than in Happy Valley. Is Franklin tired of having to beat Ohio State to have a shot at the national title? There isn’t a roadblock like that at USC.


Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham reacts to a call
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham reacts to a call against Weber State on Sept. 2.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

USC knows plenty about how well-coached the Utes are year in and year out, and the Trojans could do a lot worse than plucking Whittingham from Utah. Would he actually bolt for USC after watching the school run through coaches the last decade only to struggle to compete with the Utes for the Pac-12 South crown every fall? That’s another question.


Next rung


Greg Schiano, Rutgers head coach

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano talks to reporters at Big Ten Conference media days July 23.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Schiano isn’t a sexy choice, but the guy is proving again during his second stint at Rutgers that he has the recipe for a quick rebuild — with far fewer resources and less history than exist at USC. If he can do it in New Brunswick, N.J., you’d have to imagine he could pull it off in L.A. Schiano’s time working under Urban Meyer at Ohio State can only help him navigate the expectations of a top-five job.


Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy speaks during a news conference in 2020.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Bohn hired Bieniemy in 2010 to be the Colorado offensive coordinator, and he had college coaching experience before that at UCLA from 2003 to 2005. Now Bieniemy guides the NFL’s most explosive offense, waiting for someone to give him his first head coaching opportunity. Most assumed it would come in the NFL, but this has been the case for years and perhaps one of pro football’s annually most popular candidates on the coaching carousel is tired of being one of pro football’s annually most popular candidates on the coaching carousel. It would be a surprise if Bohn doesn’t check in given their past.


Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach

Boston College coach Jeff Hafley looks on during a game against Massachusetts on Sept. 11.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)


We’ll stay in the Meyer tree with Hafley, the former Buckeyes defensive coordinator who has gotten Boston College to a level of respectability much sooner than expected. Hafley, 42, is young and will be getting a better job in the coming years, and it can’t hurt his candidacy that he is currently navigating the private school dynamic in Chestnut Hill, Mass.


Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator

Former Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien looks on during a news conference in January 2020.
(Ed Zurga / Associated Press)

O’Brien did a terrific job at Penn State for two years after walking into a truly dismal situation in Happy Valley, where he followed Joe Paterno and coached in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He made the Houston Texans into a playoff team but couldn’t get them over the hump. After a season watching Nick Saban up close, could he be the latest former head coach to use Alabama to get back to the big stage?


Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops in August 2020.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

While older brother Bob will get the most attention anytime a big college job comes available, there’s no denying what Mark has done at Kentucky, bringing life to the basketball powerhouse’s football program. The family pedigree can’t hurt either.



P.J. Fleck, Minnesota head coach

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck waits to take the field before a game against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 11.
(Craig Lassig / Associated Press)

He might be too quirky for the big city, but there’s a little magic in Fleck that’s going to take him further than Minnesota. USC would have to really whiff on its priority names to get to him at this point, though.


Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator

Clemson co-offensive cordinator Tony Elliott speaks during a news conference in January 2020.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Elliott’s name is going to come up until he gets that first head coaching job. Given his coaching career has been spent entirely in South Carolina, he doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for USC.

Might as well engage



Chris Petersen, former Boise State and Washington head coach

Washington head coach Chris Petersen instructs his players in December 2019.
Then-Washington head coach Chris Petersen instructs his players in December 2019.
(Steve Marcus / Associated Press)

Petersen and USC have reportedly flirted in the past. Petersen is available after retiring from the Huskies, but does he still have the fire inside to take on a job like this?


Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach

Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops speaks during an XFL news conference in February 2019.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

There’s less doubt about Stoops’ fire — you can’t take the steel-forged Youngstown, Ohio, roots out of the man — and more doubt about his ability to return to “Big Game Bob” in his 60s. But a big name like his could certainly fire up the fan base.

USC was right to fire Clay Helton, but the Trojans need a big name to return them to glory. Maybe not Pete Carroll, but the power and swagger Carroll represented.

Sept. 13, 2021